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Graniteville continues to recover almost 15 years after train crash, chlorine leak

March 9, 2019 GMT

Almost 15 years after a train wreck released a geyser of 90 tons of deadly pressurized liquid chlorine in the center of Graniteville, the town, its residents and people working in Avondale’s textile mills that early January morning still are recovering.

Dr. John E. Vena, the chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and Anne Fulcher, the community coordinator with the Graniteville Brownfield Project, discussed Wednesday the incident, its impact on the Graniteville community and how the community continues to recover during a Dynamic Dialogue at Aiken Technical College.

Their topic was “The Graniteville Train Wreck and Chlorine Disaster: The Continuing Road to Recovery.”

“It destroyed that town, which is my hometown. It’s just not Graniteville anymore,” said a 46-year-old woman, who said she lived in the town until she was a young adult, during the question-and-answer period. “I still have family and friends there, but it doesn’t seem like the town I was raised in. That train wreck – that matter of minutes that morning – destroyed it. It’s not green. It’s not lush. It’s not like it used to be. It is dead. It is not the community I grew up in.”

Vena outlined some of the results of health studies conducted on people – textile mill employees and community residents – exposed to and affected by the chlorine leak.

Lung function dropped significantly, and the chlorine exposure caused damage to the lungs, Vena said. Chlorine exposure led to increased blood pressure. Victims also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and females in particular exhibited a tendency to panic.

“We’re not sure why. Maybe it was the impact on their children. Half of the population was kids,” Vena said, responding to a question about the effect on females. “That’s an unanswered question.”

Vena said recovery efforts were hampered because the area never was declared a disaster area, which would have provided benefits for victims.

Then S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford requested the disaster designation, but then President George W. Bush refused to sign it, Vena said.

“These things happen a lot. It would have set a precedent under the law, which really hampered what the state could do,” he said.

Also, no criminal charges, such as criminal negligence, were filed, Vena said. Now, the Office of Crime Victims in the U.S. Department of Justice offers support services for victims of environmental crimes.

“You can argue that this was an environmental crime. There was negligence or liability,” Vena said. “If you’re the victim of an environmental crime and someone is convicted for discharging chemical, there are support services for victims.”

Vena said people affected by the chlorine leak need primary care and continued assessment.

“That means continued support for their pulmonary health, blood pressure testing and long-term impacts on cardiovascular disease,” he said. “That means that in Graniteville there is a need for primary care with the knowledge that these folks were exposed in the past.”

Clemson University’s extension offices could be used as innovative outreach locations where people could get care, Vena said.

The Medical University of South Carolina’s Telehealth program or establishing a Telehealth office in a former mill are other options that could provide primary care.

“Doctors in the community can call into MUSC and get advice on whatever problem they’re seeing and can provide access to care, and patients can get access to a doctor at MUSC through the program,” Vena said.

At 2:39 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2005, a Norfolk Southern two-engine, 42-car train veered onto a spur line in the center of Graniteville and slammed into a locomotive tied down on the side track, derailing 14 cars and releasing the deadly chlorine gas.

Nine people died; 15 were in ICUs at local hospitals for more than two days; 72 people were hospitalized; 851 were treated; and more than 7,000 people were told to shelter in place.

Chlorine was not identified as the toxin for almost an hour, Vena said.